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Beijing: Tourist Sites, Nightlife, Shopping!

19 Aug

Original Post: August 7, 2007

Our excursion to the Great Wall took most of the morning and early afternoon, but back in Beijing we had some time to kill before dinner so we decided to take a rickshaw tour (super touristy!) of the Hutong area.  The Hutong is the old area outside of the Forbidden City and it is really run down in parts, but nicely fixed up in others – a bit of an imbalance. There’s a big lake that is surrounded with bars and at night they get all lit up with neon (surprise, surprise) and you can rent little boats and cruise around on the lake. That was super fun, so unlike anything else I’ve done while drinking…  Following the lead of some local teenagers, we loaded up on the cheapest cans of beer known to mankind at a stand just down the road from the boat rentals.  You can get a can for between 15 and 40 cents depending on the brand,  and I assume we got the Schlitz of Chinese beer because we went for 15 cent variety.  We rented our boat and set off, along with dozens of other people.  There were random vendors around the edges of the lake and you could buy fireworks and sparklers from them.  We got 10 boxes of sparklers for $1. We spent about 1 1/2 hours cruising around and watching the madness, and then headed back to shore to check out some of the land-nightlife.   There may have been karaoke, strobe lights, and John dancing on a pole…but I can’t be completely certain.

Of course, Beijing has all the traditional sights as well – The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Temple of Heaven, Tiannamen Square, Behai Park etc.  We saw all of them, but our favorites were the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. They were both set in huge parks so you could get away from the heat if you went into the trees. Did I mention it was A MILLION DEGREES?  Really, you think I’m kidding, but I’m not.  The buildings have mostly been redone and look very sparkling new – it’s amazing how much detail some of the places have. Tiannamen Sq. looks exactly like it does in the movies. We tried to go to Mao’s Mausoleum, but it’s closed at the moment, super bummer.  We did however see some sort of military marching drill that was at once fascinating and a little scary.

You can’t take me to a city without taking me to the shopping, and Beijing was no exception.  We spent a whole afternoon at the largest outdoor market I’ve ever seen.  On the evening of our last day we went to go see a Kung Fu show. It was probably one of the most ridiculous things I’ve ever seen – totally made for Western tourists, but super funny all the same. There were some good Kung Fu actions, but the story (about a young monk named Kong Kong who works hard to become a Kung Fu master) was absurd and the acting/dancing/costumes/effect were terrible. I am glad we went as we have some amusing photos, but overall a bit of a waste of $$ despite how much the guidebooks hype it up.

We spent 5 full days inBeijing plus a day at the Great Wall and that seemed like a good amount of time. We encountered a few local English speakers, but for the most part we got by with our minimal phrases, a lot of charades, and loads of smiling.

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Beijing: Getting There & The Great Wall

12 Aug

Original Post: August 7, 2007

The Great Wall

Before we left someone told me that a lot of people don’t like Beijing, that it’s ‘too Chinese’ whatever that means.  People said, “It’s big it’s dirty, it’s old, a lot of people don’t speak English.”  Lots of places are old.  Beijing is a huge city, it’s going to be dirty, I mean, have you ever seen a truly clean city? The only clean-ish big cities I’ve ever seen were in Germany and Holland, and I’m sure there were dirty parts I just didn’t notice at the time. As for the not many people speaking English…um… it’s China, why would that be surprising?

After spending a mere 5 days there, I decided that I really liked Beijing as a city.  In fact, it is my favorite huge city in China thus far. Shanghai is fine, but it’s very modern and huge and hard to get around. Shanghai looks a bit like New York. I want to see OLD China reflected in at least some parts of an ancient city, and you do get that in many parts of Beijing. There are of course many modern buildings, especially with the preparations for the Olympics, but it still retains a feel of the old world.

We took an overnight train to Beijing from Shanghai, which I highly recommend.  We splurged and got the fancy sleeper car, still only about $50 per person.  I have always loved to travel by trains and this was no exception.  The car was comfortable and came with an electric tea pot and some nice little slippers.  It was a restful journey and we were totally refreshed upon arrival in Beijing.

We arranged for a driver to come and meet us at the train station in the morning and he drove us right out to the Great Wall.  We went to one of the sections that’s a little further out so it wouldn’t be so crowded. It’s pretty incredible, looks just like you would expect it to. Unfortunately, it was hazy so we couldn’t see for miles and miles like you imagine you will be able to.

A hazy day at the Wall

We hiked along the wall for about 4 hours though, even on some sections that seemed to be totally overgrown and forgotten.  The Wall is set on the tops of the peaks and then dips down with the hills, which means it’s basically a million stairs, and they are steep and uneven.

Big f-ing steps.

They have a marathon you can run on the Wall and it’s apparently one of the most difficult marathons in the world, which is not surprising AT ALL. Perhaps the most amusing part of this little escapade is that since the wall is way up on the mountain you can either hike up to it and then back down, or you can take a chair lift up and an alpine slide back down. We opted for the alpine slide considering the crazy heat. It was definitively cheesy, and I thought for sure there was a huge risk of catapulting off the tracks, but it was very much worth it.

Scary!

Up Next…major tourist sites, nightlife, and shopping!

The Time We Attempted To Eat Locally In Shanghai.

5 Aug

Original Post: July 26, 2007

Yesterday, Justin and I took a taxi into somewhere downtown Shanghai (I mean really, it’s like there are 9 or 10 areas that could be classified as downtown, so we just picked an area and went) to try to find some food. We stumbled upon a restaurant that hadsome pictures and a little bit of English on the menu. We ordered what we thought would be a reasonable amount of food for the two of us, so we were pretty suprised when they brought out gigantic dishes piled with enough to feed at least 4 or 5.  Our waiter was highly amused by our mistake, but in all it only cost us $15, so it was a hell of a deal 🙂 We had chicken (without the head and feet this time) a beef with bamboo dish, some kind of dumpling soup, and fried rice.

It would have helped to understand the menu headings for "large" or "small" portions...

The true highlight of the meal had nothing to do with food.  On our table there sat this funny little chicken thing and if you aligned an arrow dial with your astrological sign and put a coin in its mouth is would spit out your fortune in a little pill capsule. We each got one but as they are in Chinese we have no idea what they are saying…

Tonight we are taking the overnight train toBeijing and will be going to the wall first thing Friday morning! We will be updating from the road, hopefully with some regularity.

Suzhou and Tong-Li

29 Jul

Original Post: July 25, 2007

Yesterday morning we made it out of bed bright and early and set out for Suzhou, a smaller city about 2 hours east of Shanghai.  Suzhou is famous for it’s freshwater pearls, but it also has a large museum and a few Unesco World Heritage gardens. Mr. Shin dropped us off at the start of the main pedestrian walkway where we were immediately bombarded by touts who wanted us to take a ride in their boats. Suzhou is a canal town, more like Amsterdam than Venice, and there are a lot of little boats you can take. We declined and instead went right to the museum. It was a new building and had a beautiful courtyard with a fishpond and bamboo gardens. The museum is mostly artifacts and was very nice, but the highlight was that it also included an entrance ticket into the Mansion of  Prince Zhong. This was an old palace that has dozens of courtyards and rooms, many of which have old furniture on display or have been resorted to look as they would have 1,000 years ago. There was a huge area with a theater room, a temple room, and a whole bunch of other stuff that I couldn’t understand because there were no English signs, so we had to just do the best to infer some meaning from what we saw.

After the museum we walked up the road to the Humble Administrator’s Garden, which was rather expensive (for China) but enormous. It’s one of the Unesco gardens and is very popular with the Chinese tourists, although we did see a few other foreigners there. These gardens have large ponds filled with lotus flowers, little bridges and walkways that run throughout the garden, a variety of temples and small pagodas, a bonsai garden, and a little hut where you can get a can of beer for 25 cents. It was beautiful, but it was 95 degrees out and super humid, so we were roasting after about an hour. We managed to wander around for a while, but we ultimately gave in to the heat and called Mr. Shin to come and pick us up.

Lotus in the Suzhuo gardens

Woman gathering Lotus to sell in Suzhuo

Feeding the Koi in Suzhuo

After we left Suzhou we headed out to Tong-Li, an ancient water-town (that you have to pay to get into…?) that was only about 30 minutes away. We decided to stop and have a real Chinese lunch at a non-western restaurant.  Mr. Shin came in and helped us since there was no English menu. We ordered a fish (they brought it out live in a plastic bag for us to look at before they cooked it), a chicken, some sweet pork and peppers, some cooked vegetables, and some dumplings. All of it was rather good, though the chicken came with head and feet still attached. The fish was basically cooked whole and sliced open and you just had to pull it apart with the chopsticks, which was incredibly difficult.

When we finished lunch we headed out to wander around the town. There are a lot of old mansions, and little museums to explore, but it was mostly nice to just walk around the streets and watch people. There are all kinds of little canals here, this village looks more like Venice, and you can hire a boat to take you around.  At one point we saw a little fishing boat that uses these big birds to fish. They tie a string around the bird’s neck so it can’t fully swallow, and then they make it (don’t ask me how) dive down and get a fish. When it comes back up the fisherman grabs the bird by the neck, flips it upside down, and forces the fish out.

Canals of Tong Li

Fishing Birds

Canals of Tong Li

These towns are easy to get to by car, though I’m fairly certain you can take a train or a bus directly from Shanghai.  They are definitely worth a visit, especially if the weather is cooperative.

Grocery Shopping, China Style

22 Jul

Original Post: July 24, 2007

On our way home from shopping the other day, we stopped by Carrefour, the huge local grocery store.  It’s like a super Wal-Mart with all kinds of items for the house, yard,  and a full grocery section. I have to say, there is some strange stuff  in that store.  There were dozens of fruits and veggies I’ve never seen, you can buy live sea creatures for dinner – they have big tanks of fish, turtles, frogs, eels, and more creatures that I couldn’t identify. While we were standing there one of the fish leaped out of the tank and was flopping all over the floor.  

My, what big, prickly fruits you have...

They're better fresh apparently.

Can't have them scuttling away

They also have HUGE vats of rice, you just get a bag and fill up as much as you need.   Next to the rice vats is a whole isle devoted entirely to soy sauce, akin to our salad dressing section.

Rice. Is it really filled all the way to the bottom? What happens to all that bottom rice that never gets scooped up? Does it get rotated? So many questions.

There’s a prepared food section as well with loads of tasty looking dumplings and rolls, we picked up a few to have for dinner tonight, though we are less than clear on what exactly is inside them.

Still have no real clue what was inside these, but all were delicious.

Also delicious!

Markets of Shanghai: Part II

15 Jul

Original Post: July 23, 2007

As if day 1 of shopping wasn’t enough, we spent pretty much the whole next day shopping as well.  We started out by going to a fabric market, a huge complex with three floors of fabric stores and tailors.  On each floor there are stalls of vendors selling everything from basic cotton, print patterns, silks, leather, fur…you name it, they have it.  You can get anything you want copied (say, my most favorite pair of pants) in any fabric you want for about $10 plus the cost of the fabric.  This is a spectacular place and while we could have spent all day here, we needed to move on to bigger and more varied shopping experiences.

Next we were off to Yuyuan market, which is a big mall-style shopping area in Shanghai. It has a lot of traditional architecture that has been restored so it looks new, and it is PACKED with people and vendors. The complex itself is huge and the inside has nice air-conditioned stores and restaurants. Most of the stores sell the same touristy trinkets as everywhere else, but they try to charge you 20 times as much as the stalls just outside the complex. We wandered around for a few hours and bought a whole bunch of things.  Again, you have to bargain like crazy for anything like a reasonable price.  Jenny is pretty good at this and knows all the numbers (as opposed to the, oh, ten that I know) so we mostly just let her take care of that. At one point we went inside part of the complex that is dedicated entirely to jewelry. The whole first floor is diamonds, the second floor is jade, and the third was all kinds of beads. You can pick whatever kind of beads you want and they will string necklaces for you.  We went nuts here.  I ended up with at least a dozen beaded necklaces, and that was before we hit the pearl section.

There are so many of these statue vendors, all claiming to have "real antique" versions...but really, they are all plaster or cement.

The market has been nicely updated and is filled with walkways and ponds

There’s a little town just outside Shanghai that is known for freshwater pearls, we are actually going to take a trip there tomorrow, but apparently it’s cheaper to buy the same pearls in Shanghai.  Jenny has a favorite pearl stand so off we went!  Like the bead stands, the pearls can be bought pre-strung or loose and you can have them made into whatever you like – earrings, necklaces, pendants, you get the idea.  They have every variation of freshwater pearl you can imagine, from traditional white to a range of colors that include pink and black (both naturally that way) and all kinds of dyed pearls.  We ended up purchasing necklaces and earrings for pretty much everyone we’ve ever known…the prices are THAT good.  (Incidentally when I came back to the USA I took one of the necklaces to a shop in NYC to have it evaluated and they gave me a valuation that was higher than the price I paid!  If you go to Shanghai, get yourself LOADS of these…)

After we got the jewelry we headed outside to grab a snack and Justin and I decided to brave the street food. We got some sort of fried tofu sqaures that were bland and mushy, but we also got something that resembeled a dough ball that was rather delicious.  It was fried and crunchy on the outside,  but creamy on the inside, sort-of like cheese…? We declined the roasted pigeon and mini-sparrows on a stick.

Market snacks

Markets of Shanghai: Part I

8 Jul

Original Post: July 22, 2007

One of my favorite things to do is to go shopping.  Shocking, I know.  Things are no different here in Shanghai so today we embarked on a massive shopping spree that took us to the best, and most random, that the city has to offer.

The vendors here are huge on fakes.  I’m not really interested in the whole debate of is this right or wrong, it simply is what it is at the moment for me.  If you are strongly against buying fake goods, just skip this part.  Beneath the Museum of Science and Technology lives an enormous underground market of all the fake stuff (luxury purses, North Face stuff, name brand jeans etc).  There are a hundreds of vendors and every one is trying to get you to come in and buy from them. Some of the people grab you and literally try to drag you into the store. Justin got a whole set up of new snowboard pants and a parka (funny when it’s 100 degrees out to be trying on snow stuff…) and a bunch of ‘Diesel’ jeans. I got some shoes, fans, etc.  You have to bargain like crazy to get a fair price, it’s a huge process full of dramatics and hand waving and walking away, but you can get some great deals if you’re patient.  I have managed to learn to say ‘how much?’ ‘too much!’ and some numbers, so I can haggle a bit with Jenny and John’s help.  It is exhausting to be there for too long, but it’s amazing how cheap some of it can get. Some of the ladies make a big production of being mad that you were able to bargain them down so much and they yell that you are too clever and not to come back!

To end our shopping extravaganza we went to an older market on Dongtai Lu. I got TONS of stuff here, it’s where they have some more traditional goods, still touristy, but we are still almost the only western people everywhere we go so it doesn’t seem as touristy as I suspect it really is. It reminded me more of a flea market that has a lot of random useless stuff, but some key special pieces tucked in if you are patient enough to look for them.  This place was harder to bargain at, and I didn’t do as great of a job, but I still got some really interesting things – these carved wood hanging pieces that mean (as everything seems to here) “bring you health and riches”, a combination lock that is blocks of Chinese characters (had to get the lady to write the combo really clearly), and a bunch of unusual gifts for people…no Chinatown trinkets here 😉

The market on Dongtai Lu

Jenny checks out a vendor

Rocking Out, China Style

1 Jul

Original Post: July 21, 2007

We are living it up here in Shanghai…seriously, it’s almost criminal.

Last night, after a long day of wandering around the city, we went to New Heights for dinner. It’s a super fancy (read, normal NYC prices for dinner) restaurant on the top of a building that overlooks the Bund. The Bund is a big promenade of sorts that looks out over the river.  There are many different restaurants and bars and was crowded with all kinds of people, tourists and locals alike.   Food was great, if less than traditionally Chinese, and after we had some drinks on the deck and watched the boats roll on by. At night Shanghai is crazy because everything is all lit up with neon! The highways are outlined in flashing blues and greens, many of the buildings are outlined, and the boats go totally all out.  I have never seen anything like it, and I have to say, I totally love it.

Looking out across the river.

After dinner we went to a bunch of interesting bars, the first was Binjiang, aka the Ice Bar. It’s like a huge meat freezer and the whole inside is made of ice.   They give you a big North Face parka so you don’t freeze.  I must say it’s a bit of a shock to the senses to be outdoors in 100+ degree heat and then put on a parka and enter a room of freezing ice.  In any case, the only drinks Binjiang serves are shots of vodka.  Our driver (Mr. Shen) came in with us where he thankfully declined to have a shot with the table next to us.

Brrrr!

The next bar was Jade on 36, which is in the Shangrila hotel.  Again, super fancy, full of tourists and is fully NYC prices. Jade 36 has these crazy bathrooms that were like big capsules filled with neon lights.  I half expected to be transported somewhere else while inside.

Restroom aglow!

In the lower level of that same hotel is another bar called Bat. It is way more mellow, and has a karaoke thing going on, but they have a couple of girls on standby who sing when no one else wants to. We were pretty trashed at this point so of course John and I karaoked some Red Hot Chili Peppers, which went a little better than the time Justin and I attempted a Bon Jovi song a few years back.  Near the end of the evening, sometime closer to dawn than dusk, Jenny and I took shots that were on fire because really, nothing says a good night on the town like setting your esophagus aflame.

Are you sure this is safe?

China!

24 Jun

Original Post: July 19, 2007

We made it to China!  It seemed like a million hours of flight, but somehow, we arrived in Shanghai.  Our luggage filled with American food for Jenny and John also arrived, and I have to say I’m amazed by this since we had 4 (yes FOUR) connecting flights to get here.

So far everything is going well, Jenny and John have a super phat apartment in the Pudong district of Shanghai.  They also have a driver.  Yeah, a driver.  Stoopid fancy.  Yesterday we went to all these crazy specialty stores that I have no idea how anyone ever figures out where they are to begin with, but once someone finds them the word spreads and you can get a little card telling you how to get there. Basically, the driver would drop us off on the side of some random road and we would go down an ally, maybe into some random run-down building (keep in mind there are NO SIGNS that there is a store) and through some doorways and up some stairs and through another random door and then all of a sudden you are in a room full of silk, or purses or jeans, or winter coats or whatever. Totally crazy…

Justin tries on some jeans

Rocky Mountain Rapids

17 Jun

Original Post: July 16, 2007

Last week we headed out to do some touristy rafting, which I somehow had never done despite living my entire life surrounded by these rivers.  In all honesty, I was a bit nervous since I might in fact be the clumsiest person alive and I was absolutely certain I was going to fall out of the raft.  I consider it nothing short of a small miracle that I managed to keep myself inside the raft the entire trip. We only did a half day trip that stopped at Mishawaka…serious blast from the past there, I spent many a high-school evening at concerts there and have some fond, if fuzzy, memories.  We did class III and V rapids, which were not nearly as freaky as I expected, but one of the rafts behind us nearly tipped completely over when they mis-navigated a rock.  We went ahead and bought the tourist pictures.

I'm the one getting soaked

Paddle!

Paddle some more!

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